I am a huge baseball fan and I’ve always been drawn to a good baseball movie. Unlike any other sport, baseball has the history, the personalities, and the spirit which are perfect ingredients for a good sports movie. For years we’ve seen baseball movies that focus on everything from the sport’s history and inspirational true stories to hilarious locker room comedies and spirited fantasy pictures. I’m always excited when I see a new baseball film and the newest one to join the bunch is “42”. It’s the story of Jackie Robinson and his breaking of the color barrier which opened the door for black baseball players to play in the big leagues.
I mentioned inspirational, it’s hard to find a more inspirational story than this one. While this is the story of Jackie Robinson, a large part of the movie focuses on Branch Rickey, the president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. In the film Rickey (Harrison Ford) decides to shake things up in the world of baseball by bringing a black player into an all white league. With the 1946 season ahead, Ricky knows that the backlash will be severe but he believes it’s the right thing not just for baseball but for his bottom line. He believes he’s found his man in Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) – a tough kid who Rickey believes can handle the pressures that are sure to come.
Jackie is brought from the Negro League to play for the Montreal Royals, Brooklyn’s farm team. The movie then follows his eventual rise to the big leagues while documenting the many struggles and hardships he faced in a segregated and racially divided environment. Writer and director Brian Helgeland doesn’t gloss over the uncomfortable racism of the time and that’s something that gives Jackie’s story a key sense of significance and importance. It makes his endurance and accomplishment all the more profound.
I also appreciated how Helgeland showed the good on both sides of the racial line. This wasn’t a single man’s accomplishment. It took fair minded people on both sides who were willing to look past the peripheral façades in order to see and accomplish a greater good. “42” takes time to tell this part of the story which keeps it more grounded in reality while also conveying a good, strong message. The film also does a great job of recreating the mid-1940s. The clothes, uniforms, and neighborhoods all brim with a pitch perfect period feel. And seeing Ebbets Field recreated full of energy and life was spectacular.
Boseman gives a really nice performance. In movies like this actors will often take an opportunity to overact which tends to heighten the performance while lowering the material. That’s not the case here. Boseman remains surprisingly restrained even during more emotional scenes. I was also struck by how much he resembled Robinson, not so much in the off the field scenes but during the baseball games. There were four or five glimpses on the field where I would have sworn there was CGI trickery involved.
And then there’s Harrison Ford, fake eyebrows, gravely voice, and all. He really steals the show here. It took me a couple of minutes to adjust to his performance but in no time I was completely sold on his character. It’s such a great role and Ford knocks it out of the park (pun most certainly intended). Ford and Boseman are the two big performances but there is some good supporting work worth mentioning. I really liked Christopher Meloni as manger Leo Durocher. Unfortunately his role is a pretty small one. I also liked Nicole Beharie as Jackie’s wife Rachel. And then the baseball guy in me really enjoyed watching Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese. Granted, sometimes the material he’s given is pretty flimsy but he’s still a lot of fun.
All of these things help make “42” a good movie but I did have some issues with it. I was really hoping the movie would be able to avoid many of the common trappings that biopics fall into. Unfortunately it couldn’t and this is particularly obvious with the ending. Now I knew Jackie’s story so I wasn’t expecting a huge surprise. But I also was hoping for more than the obvious and conventional finale we’re given. I won’t go into detail but let’s just say everything falls perfectly into place to try and give the movie the emotionally uplifting ending it aims for. You see it coming a mile away.
I also had to roll my eyes at several injected scenes meant for either dramatic effect or to shed light on the racism of the day. These particular scenes felt just like overly scripted Hollywood fabrications. Now I’m not at all saying that these types of things didn’t happen at the time. But the way they’re presented in the movie clearly exposes them as phony and misguided melodrama. It stands out because in several other scenes “42” shows the racism of the day in much more potent and effective ways. And then there’s Alan Tudyk as Phillies manager Ben Chapman. History bears witness that Chapman was a bad guy and his actions, especially against Jackie Robinson, were deplorable. But here he almost comes across as a cartoon character. He has a big sequence later in the film and while he gets to the heart of what actually happened I had a hard time buying into him.
While these things kept me from embracing “42” as a great film, make no mistake, this is still a really good baseball movie based on an incredible story of courage and perseverance. I also couldn’t help but feel that giddy baseball fan excitement well up inside of me as I watched it. There’s a great sense of love for the game and a sensitive respectfulness for the subject matter found in “42”. And while it’s not a perfect film it’s yet another shining example of how this great sport is fertile ground for quality movies.